‘Beware of passion, Hester; it always leads to something ugly’
Last night I saw the new film version of the Terence Rattigan play The Deep Blue Sea, directed by own Liverpudlian auteur, Terence Davies. Although it had its merits, and despite being a great admirer of Davies’ previous work, this film failed to stir my soul as much as I had anticipated from reading the critics’ reviews.
The Deep Blue Sea is a film that has all the distinctive Davies characteristics: lovingly and beautifully photographed in soft focus, with the camera lingering on surfaces and reflections and searching out oases of light in deep shadow. At the start of Rattigan’s play the central character Hester has just attempted suicide by turning on the gas in her flat, and thereafter the stage action never leaves the flat. Davies breaks out of this restriction, and the best part of the film is the ten minute prelude, a largely wordless series of flashbacks illuminating moments in her troubled relationships that lead up to Hester’s suicide attempt. It’s vintage Davies: highly-charged emotionally, the emotions heightened by music not words (in this case, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto flooding the soundtrack).
The story concerns Hester, a passionate woman (played by Rachel Weisz), married to a kindly but dull judge (Simon Russell-Beale) who breaks the bounds of early 1950s British social respectability in order to live in the moment and pursue her overwhelming passion for a dashing Battle of Britain pilot (Tom Hiddleston). Terence Davies mise-en-scene provides a resonant evocation of post-war Britain where attempted suicide was still a crime and a judge’s wife could not leave her husband for a younger man without incurring disgrace and condemnation.
Rachel Weisz and Simon Russell-Beale give terrific performances, yet I found the three central figures unconvincing. Weisz seemed too young and bursting with suppressed libido for a woman used to a dull life married life to a fust, middle-aged judge. While Tom Hiddleston’s Freddie seemed lightweight and juvenile. I didn’t find Davies’ community singalong scenes – one on an Underground platform in the Blitz, the other in a pub where the regulars belt out a hearty chorus of ‘You Belong to Me’ before it fades into the Jo Stafford recording – convincing either. In his great Liverpool films (Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes) scenes of communal singing were a way to give the working class characters a voice that lifted them beyond the restrictions of their daily lives. Here it just seems mannered.
But my main response to this film is that, beyond the first half hour, it was just plain dull. I couldn’t feel engaged with the upper class characters, and the final scene in which Hester and Tom part for the last time, seemed to drag on interminably, with long silences between their words. I felt like shouting, ‘Just go, for God’s sake!’
I don’t know How much this has to do with Terence Rattigan’s original play, which I haven’t seen. Rattigan’ss forte was an upper class world of understated emotions, yet in recent years his reputation, which sank under the impact of the kitchen sink dramas of the late 1950s, has been on the rise again, and he is now regarded as one of Britain’s finest dramatists. I’m of the generation that was greatly affected by the screen versions of two of his plays – The Winslow Boy,based on the true story of a father’s fight to clear his son’s name after the boy is expelled from Naval College for stealing a five-shilling postal order; and The Browning Version, in which a classics teacher approaching retirement from a career at a British public school comes to term with his life and its failures.
Writing in The Telegraph, Simon Heffer presented this appreciation of Rattigan:
Rattigan wrote five or six of the finest films ever made in this country, and in this important year for him and his reputation we should remember that too.
Three of his screenplays of his own stage works stick in my mind: The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version and The Deep Blue Sea. He also helped out on Graham Greene’s treatment of his novel Brighton Rock, and he wrote two other stunning screenplays: The Way to the Stars in 1945, and The Sound Barrier in 1953. They all have something in common: they all – including The Winslow Boy, which is set at the close of the Edwardian era – are perfect representations of the values, attitudes and conflicts of their age. But they are a representation of the values, attitudes and conflicts of the refined, well-to-do, middle and upper-middle classes: and this, in 1956, would be Rattigan’s undoing. [...]
Rattigan wrote about the intensity of feeling – whether it be about injustice, marital infidelity or sheer loneliness and absorption in one’s work – that sometimes comes in to all our lives; but his characters dealt with it within the confines of their class and their times, and did so with a literate originality. [...]
His characters are the masters of the clipped accent, the raised eyebrow, but also harbour the volcanic passions that lie beneath the sang-froid of the English personality. Writing at his peak in the immediate post-war period, Rattigan captured an aspect of the times perfectly, and held up the mirror to a distinct section of society. This went down exceptionally well with both audiences and critics, until John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger went on in the same year as Suez.
The Deep Blue Sea was first performed in 1952, and in writing it, Rattigan was reportedly inspired by the suicide of a young male actor with whom he had at one time had a relationship. The play was recently revived at the Chichester Festival Theatre to great critical acclaim.
It’s been 11 years since the last fiction film made by Terence Davies. That was was The House of Mirth, based on Edith Wharton’s novel. Although set some 50 years apart, they have a lot in common: a proud, passionate woman falling foul of social laws, and a trenchant view of moralising respectability.
Terence Davies talks about adapting The Deep Blue Sea
- The Deep Blue Sea: Terence Davies tackles Rattigan classic (BBC)
- Terence Davies: follow your hormones (Guardian)
- The Deep Blue Sea: Interview with Terence Davies (Electric Sheep)